Tag Archives: Henry Cole

TALK: Glad Tidings: A history of the Christmas card

For our annual Christmas talk, we are welcoming Curator Steph Mastoris of the National Waterfront Museum. As a social history curator he has been fascinated for over two decades by the custom of sending Christmas greetings to family and friends, and the billions of cards that are produced. Get a sneak peak at what to expect from his Christmas talk next Tuesday.

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The Christmas card has been very close to the heart of the British postal service from just after the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840. Moreover, the Half-Penny Post of 1870 was an important catalyst for the widespread popularity of the Christmas card. Starting as a wealthy middle class novelty, the tradition of sending Christmas cards became and still is a massive activity.

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In my talk I will discuss how very recent research is suggesting that the first published Christmas cards were produced some years before the famous one commissioned by Henry Cole in 1843.

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As the history of the Christmas card is fundamentally about how people have used them, I will talk about projects that look into how we use the postal service over the holiday season. One of the current projects, People’s Post, gives you the chance to share your memories of receiving cards and gifts in the post. After the talk, there will be an opportunity for the audience to contribute their stories. The information provided may well get built into the interpretation of the new Postal Museum when it opens in 2016!

Join us next Tuesday (2 December) at 7pm at the Phoenix Centre to find out more!

Virtual Advent Calendar – 1st December

In the lead-up to Christmas we are showcasing some of the festive items in our collection across our social networks. Behind the door of our virtual advent calendar today is…

The World’s First Christmas Card (1843)

Christmas card consisting of a lithograph on card with a rustic trellis dividing the card into three scenes.

An example of the first British Christmas card. The Christmas card was designed by John Callcott Horsley RA, from an idea by Sir Henry Cole (founding director of the Victoria and Albert Museum).The initial print run was for 1000 cards. The first edition of cards was lithographed and hand coloured by a professional colourer named Mason. Surplus cards from the original print run were sold under Henry Cole’s pseudonym of Felix Summerly for one shilling each. This card is one of these surpluses.

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See larger images of all the items in our Virtual Advent Calendar on Flickr.

The first Christmas card

With Royal Mail’s last posting day fast approaching many people are hurriedly finishing off their Christmas cards. For despite the growing popularity of Christmas greetings sent online, cards are still popular, with Royal Mail delivering 750 million Christmas cards every year. Perhaps it is the personal touch of a handwritten card that keeps this tradition alive.

Like many Christmas traditions, Christmas cards date from the Victorian era. Queen Victoria sent the first official Christmas card, and Sir Henry Cole, who amongst other things was an assistant to Sir Rowland Hill in the introduction of the penny post and the first Director of the V&A, commissioned the first commercial Christmas card in 1843. 1000 of the cards designed by painter John Callcott Horsley were printed lithographically and then hand-coloured by the professional colourer Mason. Cole used as many of these cards as he required and sold the rest for one shilling each under the pseudonym Felix Summerly. An advert in the Athenaeum paper for the cards read “Just published. A Christmas Congratulation Card: or picture emblematical of Old English Festivity to Perpetuate kind recollections between Dear Friends.”

An example of the first Christmas card from our collection, sent by Leonore A N Bell to Annette Caroline Ramsden

An example of the first Christmas card from our collection, sent by Leonore A N Bell to Annette Caroline Ramsden

Horsley’s design depicts two acts of charity – “feeding the hungry” and “clothing the naked” – and a family party scene, in which three generations are drinking wine to celebrate the season. The depiction of children drinking wine proved to be controversial, for this was an era when the temperance movement was gaining in popularity in the UK, but this did not stop people buying the cards and more were printed to satisfy demand.

Very few of the first Christmas cards remain in existence. Four years ago one was sold at auction for £8,500, while another is part of our collection of postal ephemera. In 1993 the V&A re-printed the design, to celebrate 150 years of the Christmas card; we also have an example of this in our collection.

For more on Christmas traditions and the post see our online exhibition The Post of Christmas Past.